Postcard from Campeche, Mexico: Sittin’ on Campeche Bay

Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun
I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes
Watchin’ the ships roll in
Then I watch ’em roll away again, yeah
I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooo
I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

“The Dock of the Bay,” Otis Redding

Sometimes a song refuses to leave you. A marimba melody would be more appropriate, or the operatic chorus of the tamal vendor or the chant of the man pushing the cart hawking pulpo for sale.

But every time we left the house in Campeche, Otis Redding’s tune insisted on inserting itself in my mind. Of course, this meant I ambled along slowly. I was considerate enough not to let the Mister know lest he also would catch the musical infection.

This affliction does not mean a visit to Campeche is wasting time, but the city is so amazingly laidback. Even the major patriotic gathering to counter abusive trumpeting coming from El Norte in January resembled a family picnic more than a protest march.

When you ramble somewhat aimlessly, omens sometimes cross your mind. Sitting in a bayside seafood restaurant, a bird suddenly plopped down dead right next to our table. Unsure of the meaning of the occurrence, I decided it definitely was a lot closer to the adjoining table. If the omen was bad, it must belong to them.

And, then, in this time of post-election uncertainty, there was the inverted “El Viejo” boat seemingly symbolizing our retirement plan gone awry…. Surely, they won’t take away the healthcare benefits of these particular viejos not yet eligible for Medicare?

Soaking up the sun, the Crayola colors and the warmth of the people easily trumped these possibly ominous omens. And the trust. The painter at the top of a ladder placing his faith in his fellow worker perched on a quivering board below. The glowing Virgin of Guadalupe protecting the fishermen headed out before dawn.

It was almost Lent, and I mentally treated worries about gringolandia the way they kick off Carnaval in Campeche. The pre-Lenten festival begins with a festive  funeral procession. An effigy of a pirate is placed in a coffin and burned – the symbolic burial of all bad moods as the celebration gets underway.

Relaxing completely for three weeks, omens mellowed out and merged into positive signs for the coming year. Surely that bird signified ending one chapter in my life and the start of a new phase. This was strengthened by the typewriter fixating my gaze.

Returning to San Antonio, I finished work related to the manuscript on the history of the Coker Settlement and transformed from a nonfiction writer to one once again hearing her characters converse while soaking in the tub. When you involve as many characters as a Russian novelist, their conversations extend baths to toe-shriveling lengths.

One day, I will finish this epic tale of Hedda Burgemeister and San Antonio’s beer baron.

But along the way to completion, I might have to take a trip or two to seek out more good omens. A girl can never have too many of them.

And, hey, it’s the weekend. Go ahead and let this mellow melody wash away your worries:

Postcard from Bologna, Italy: My taphophobia trumps my taphophilia*

I afterwards went to the beautiful cemetery of Bologna, beyond the walls; and found, beside the superb burial ground, an original of a custode, who reminded me of the grave-digger in Hamlet. He had a collection of capuchins’ skulls, labelled on the forehead; and taking down one of them, said, This was Brother Desidero Berro, who died at forty years, one of my best friends. I begged his head of his brethren after his decease, and they gave it to me. I put it in lime and then boiled it. Here it is, teeth and all, in excellent preservation.

Baron George Gordon Byron, Letter and Journals of Lord Byron: With Notices of His Life, published posthumously in 1831

According to Lord Byron’s guide, more than 50,000 people already inhabited the Certosa di Bologna two decades after its establishment, so its population almost two centuries later must be significant. These new residents rest atop a former Etruscan necropolis. The original grounds and initial buildings were part of San Girolamo di Casara, a former Carthusian monastery established in 1334 but closed by the order of Napoleon in 1796.

When the city of Bologna staked its claim to the land for its cemetery in 1801, it declared it to be a “monumental” one with palaces for the dead designed as suitable lodging for Bologna’s nobility. The wealthy responded by providing employment to artisans and noted sculptors to create lasting tributes to their dynastic glories.

The site quickly was promoted as a must-see destination for visitors, with tours offered soon after its founding. Lord Byron described an interesting monument pointed out during his tour:

In showing some of the older monuments, there was that of a Roman girl of twenty, with a bust by Bernini. She was a Princess Barlorini, dead two centuries ago: he said, that on opening her grave, they had found her hair complete and as yellow as gold.

With only Lord Byron as our guide, we wandered seeking ancient graves, ones predating 1800. His instructions were not specific, however, and the population of the cemetery has increased.

We never found any of the earlier graves, but our urge to search was dampened by the hovering presence of one bird cawing ominously as he seemed to follow us around.

I scare easily. I’m always the one in horror films to say don’t open the door to the basement; don’t go upstairs to the attic; and no, no, no, Wendy, whatever you do, do not peek at what Jack is typing…. So, of course, I heeded the bird’s warning.

We might have been able to find them if I had been willing to take any of the stairways leading into a dark and damp maze of catacombs underground. I had no bread with me to leave a trail of crumbs, and, in my mind, crumbs only would have been consumed by some unfriendly creatures scurrying around below. Leaving us lost among the dead. Forever.

Instead, I assured the Mister my taphophilia temporarily was sated by the massive number of impressive monuments we passed. So we left our feathered friend behind and returned to the more vibrant heart of Bologna.

*My fear of being buried alive is far greater than my love of wandering through graveyards.

Coming home to roost to celebrate San Jacinto Day?



Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life,
The middle Tree and highest there that grew, 
Sat like a Cormorant; yet not true Life
Thereby regaind, but sat devising Death
To them who liv’d….

Paradise Lost, John Milton

Satan disguised as a cormorant to spy on Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden seems apt to me.


USDA photo

The gloomy-looking double-crested cormorants always spook me. They love to pose on the chains by the dam by the marina, stretching their pterodactyl-type wings as though offering to lift the chains for the barges to cruise right under, dramatically plunging to the level below.

I feel a little bit better about this display now that I know they have no oil glands to repel water; they have to spread their wings to dry out their water-logged feathers. They can’t help it.

But cormorants pop up suddenly from underwater, seemingly out of nowhere, as you walk along the river’s banks. Like Lola Fandango swimming in the tank in Where the Boys Are, these expert fishermen can hold their breath as they swim underwater for a long time. More than a minute.

Even one of river’s cormorants can give me the willies. That’s why this Hitchcock-like gathering of the birds on the Mission Reach seemed particularly ominous the other morning. For birds added to the list of those protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the 1970s, this had to represent some kind of major powwow. Fortunately, their eyes focused toward downtown, the water buzzards let us pass by them unharmed.

What could the convention of cormorants portend? The Irish part of me heaved a sigh of relief – at least the sea crows were not perched atop a church steeple.

Some cultures consider cormorants noble, but, while I’m trying to regard the glass as half-full, I can’t sell myself on that one.

Fishermen regard their sighting as good luck; the fish they seek should be found nearby. One plus for the cormorant.

According to the USDA, greedy cormorants keep fish from overpopulating the river. They actually are an environmental indicator species, meaning the environment of the Mission Reach is healthy. So our cormorants are bearers of good news. Chalk up one more for the cormorant, plus one for the work of the San Antonio River Authority.

In old Norwegian legends, a trio of cormorants bear messages or warnings from the dead.*

But we encountered a whole army of them ready to invade downtown. There were maybe 100 of them. Maybe even more than 200 (Okay, I’m not sure how many. But we definitely were outnumbered.).

But good ol’ Cliff helped me figure this out. Norwegians also believed the dead used the cormorant guise another way as well – so they could fly home for a visit.

the spirits of defenders of the Alamo?

the noble spirits of defenders of the Alamo?

So, based on my extensive research, my interpretation of the meaning of the gathered army follows.

Obviously, those cormorants were the defenders of the Alamo, rising up to celebrate the anniversary of the defeat of the Mexican Army at San Jacinto in 1836.

What do you think of that brilliant idea, my friend, Phil Collins?

Fiesta San Antonio must be their favorite holiday for rising from the grave. Betcha they come back next year.

*I have to stop right here and make a confession to the spirit of Mrs. Masterson. Some of these concepts came from But I promise. I never opened one of those guides once in your class in high school. Not for Milton. Not even when Moby Dick threatened to swallow all time for social life. Plus, I knew you could smell a CliffsNotes’ idea in the answer to a discussion question before the ink dried. Toward the end of the book, though, I did start reading only every fifth chapter…. That was still a whale of a lot of pages.