Friday, November 29, 2013


We are in CancĂșn with my cousin and her family, staying at a timeshare resort. When we first started coming here, most of the guests around us came from the US and Canada, but this time the people around us come mostly from Latin America. I’m happy about that, because I enjoy greater immersion in Latino culture. However much time I spend in Mexico and south, I’m still amazed by how friendly the people are. When most of the guests at the resort came from the north, the locals we saw most often worked here and I probably assumed that their bosses went out of their way to hire friendly people. I re-thought that theory yesterday, when we took an excursion to a nature-adventure park called Xel-Ha.

Many of the people getting onto the bus after us stopped at the top of the stairs to say hello. The first time, I thought they must know somebody in the front row, but soon I realized that at least many of them were greeting the bus passengers in general. How cool is that? This demonstrates friendliness on a whole new level. I really like it here.

We had a good time at Xel-Ha too. When Alla and I have been at this park previously, we came for an afternoon only, after visiting an archaeological site called Tulum. Having seen Tulum twice, I jumped at the opportunity to spend the whole day at Xel-Ha. We saw parts of the park I’d never had time to visit before, riding too-small bicycles up to the spring where the park’s main river begins. Since we had cloudy weather yesterday we rented wetsuits to wear with our snorkel gear and then we swam down the river, looking at an increasing variety of fish as we got closer to the sea. The warm salty water from the sea stayed below the colder fresh water from the cenote and the thermocline between the two layers shimmered in the sun.

We stopped at some towers in the river where we could play on ziplines and a couple of ropes courses. I struggled to cross a wide span by walking on a slack rope, holding onto another rope above me. Seeing that others fell when people on the rope near them lost their balance, I started with a good gap after the guy in front of me. He crossed the span successfully, but his overweight friend behind me caught up with me and then fell off. Her weight had made the rope sag under my feet so I could barely reach the overhead balance rope, and when she fell the rope under my feet snapped up like an archer’s bow and shot me into the air. I held onto the overhead rope, but came down beside the foot rope, which was now at my side. I decided I didn’t really need to get back up, and dropped, laughing, into the water. As I write this, I wonder if I could have finished the course by going hand-over-hand. I think so, and I’ll have to go back and try again.

Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy the friendly culture and the delicious food. I probably can’t bring home much of the food, but I wonder if I can get away with saying hello to the folks on the bus next time I take any kind of an excursion. I’ll give it a try.

Monday, November 18, 2013


I scared a stranger yesterday, as I walked home from church. Nicely dressed, I walked briskly down Newbury Street thinking about the pros and cons of a new cell phone plan. As I overtook a slower pedestrian, she glanced over her shoulder. All in an instant, she saw me with alarm, her eyes bugging out and her lips rounding into a little knot of fright, and she spun off sideways in a defensive crouch. I laughed and told her that I’m not all that scary.

She responded, “Why would you do that?”

If I had greater presence of mind, I might have asked, “Do what?” but I didn’t. I explained that I was just walking past, and hurried off, stung by guilt and shame for alarming this person. So I ended up playing the event over in my thought. I presume she thought I was sneaking up on her, and maybe she found it scary that I was walking so much faster than she.

Or maybe she was frightened that I looked into her eyes when she turned. I enjoy making eye contact with passers-by and it’s become my pleasant habit. At least it usually seems mutually pleasant, but this time I wondered if I did something unusual or unkind. I don’t think so, but I thought about African-American friends who confided to me how unpleasant it is to have people respond with fear to their approach. This was the first time I remember having such a stark encounter. I did not like being identified as a Scary Person.

Years ago few in New England acknowledged strangers and I was definitely the outlier. When I started working downtown I’d seek out non-whites because I could make eye contact with them, and even say “hi” when appropriate, and they’d respond. The “Yankees” (lifelong New Englanders) would not. To the Yankees, I generally did not exist unless they knew me. Things have changed since then. Boston has become a more cosmopolitan city, and the influx of foreigners and immigrants has softened the populace so people generally seem pretty outgoing and welcoming of strangers.

Yesterday, however, I felt strange. But I’m really not all that scary.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

When the weirdos come out

My step-daughter didn’t like to ride the Red Line through Harvard Square after 10 p.m. because, she insisted, that’s when the weirdos come out. I had my own encounter today long before Nika’s cutoff. A guy wearing an Arabic scarf around his neck got onto the train at Harvard Square and started harassing the young woman seated beside him. I heard him bellow, upon learning that she’s from Saudi Arabia, “Do you realize how f___ed-up your government is? It’s the most f___ed-up government in the whole world,” and carried on from there.

“Hey,” I called out, “why don’t you come over here and pick on somebody your own size?”

He didn’t move, but carried on with his theme. He asked if perhaps I were unaware of how evil things are in Saudi Arabia. I replied that I wasn’t interested in discussing that topic, but that I wished to spare an innocent guest from mistreatment as a result of her country of origin. Once again, I welcomed him to come over and carry on a conversation with me rather than bother the woman beside him.

He warmed to his task. Shocked, he accused me; “You probably support our government don’t you?” and proceeded to expound on his opinion of how I must feel about Obama, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and what a loser I must be.

I smiled and told him he was doing a good job.

“What?” he asked, incredulous.

I said, “I asked you to harass me instead of her, and you’re doing a very good job of it. Come on over and sit here beside me so the rest of the subway car doesn’t have to listen to our conversation.”

He wouldn’t budge. Staying in place, he suggested a few more things I must mistakenly believe. I pointed out that he didn’t know a thing about me, repeating my offer of a seat where he could more comfortably ask my opinions. It became quite a scene, as this fellow worked himself into a little frenzy without the slightest inkling of my political convictions.

I felt good, completely without malice and glad to have distracted this fellow from the foreigner beside him. Altogether it proved to be a rather pleasant ride home, in its own weird way.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Belarus comes to us

Our friend Antonina came to visit, bringing with her three loaves of delicious Belarusian bread. Excited to have her around, we became tourists once again in our own town. Mostly we walked around a lot, though I started her out with a ride on the back of our tandem bike. I think the best way to see a place is slowly, in such a way that one can interact by chance with the locals. That’s what got me, one evening, onto a cement pedestal with Antonina and a Mexican guy neither of us knew. The Mexican guy was out with friends from Colombia and Argentina, posing for pictures, and he wanted to draw us into his photo. We jumped onto the pedestal and I gave my phone to the Argentinian guy so I could get a version of our group picture too.

Antonina drew me out of my usual framework. For example, people in Minsk tend to walk a lot more than people in Boston. We visited a church together in Porter Square, and started home on foot so I could show her Harvard University. I figured we’d get onto the subway at Harvard and ride home, since it would take another hour to walk and we’d already been on our feet for a while. Antonina felt differently, so we walked all the way back. I’m pretty familiar with that route because I do it often on my bike, but still it felt different on foot and I’m glad we did it. I saw stuff I’d failed before then to notice, and the walk didn’t seem all that long anyway.

We also spent a couple of days in Maine. Alla and I went to Camden about a year ago and had a nice weekend, so we took Antonina with us to go see Cundy’s Harbor in the same general area. At this point on the Maine coast, the shoreline runs roughly east-to-west with lots of fingerlets of land projecting southward into the Atlantic. We came nowhere close to exploring this long stretch of coastline, having spent lots of time in Portland on our way up and not having any easy way to get from one fingerlet of land to the next. Still, we thought it was pretty cool to see the sun set over the water and then rise over the water from the same vantage point. Then on our way home we stopped at Bowdoin College because a friend of mine had gone there and Alla wanted to see their art gallery. The school has a beautiful campus, and we spent a lot of time simply gawking.

There’s nothing like having an out-of-town guest to spur discovery of one’s environs. And you know what? We live in a pretty nice place.