Tuesday, February 13, 2007

cascada post 4

Units and History

I suppose it is a truism that different countries have different cultures. Before I moved to Mexico I visited many times, usually for a week or 10 days. After I retired we stayed once for a month and once for six weeks. That was the longest visit and I remember toward the end of that stay really wanting to get back home to the USA, where the food and language and money and stores and everything else was familiar.

That memory worried me a bit when we finally made the decision to move to Mexico. Still, in spite of my beginner Spanish, I felt I knew Mexico pretty well. That six week stay was in Xalapa and our move was to be to a little place between Xalapa and Xico (in the state of Veracruz). Of course there would be an adjustment period.

Now that I have been here almost a year. I realize now how superficial my understanding of Mexico was. It is hard to be specific. What has happened I think, is that those things that were part of my persona in the USA, the neighborhood, the way people react to me, the things I liked to do, etc. are gradually being displaced and replaced by new things here. This must be acculturation. Not completely. I'm still me, it's just that my comfort level has gradually increased. I am beginning to feel at home. Tall, blond, light complected and with inadequate Spanish, I stick out like a sore thumb. But I don't FEEL like I stick out. That has been a gradual process which surely still continues. For me, a year is how long it takes.

One day perhaps I will try to describe life here, the people, the small community where we live, the bustling city of Xalapa, some of the people both expats and Mexicans that we have come to know, the climate, the countryside etc. Gradually I will hit on such things here, but lately I have been thinking and wondering how Mexico came to be like it is. Since I like books, especially old books, I have started to look at old mostly 19th century books about Mexico. On google books there are many of these. To see some yourself go to http://books.google.com , click the "Full view books" button and search for Mexico. (You might have to register first if you don't use any google services, but it is free).

Many of these books are fascinating telling of a time of stagecoaches and riding horses. They describe Mexico as it was say in 1850. What a difference! There is no mention of miles or kilometers. Distances are measured in leagues and varas. What on earth are leagues and varas?

I remembered "20000 Leagues under the Sea" by Jules Verne from when I was a youngster.


Fighting the giant squid on the submarine Nautilus


Probably I thought a league was about a yard since "20000 yards under the sea" sounded about right. That is completely wrong! Jules Verne was French (1828-1905) and published "20000 Leagues under the Sea" in 1870.

I did some checking and found that in 1870 a league (called 'lieue' in France) was about 4 kilometers, so 20000 leagues was about 80000 kilometers, almost 50000 miles! There is no ocean that deep. The diameter of the earth is only about 8000 miles. What gives?

Well, the title page looked like this:


Original title page-in French


Notice that "MERS" is plural so the English title is wrong. It should be: "20000 leagues under the seas". So they weren't 20000 leagues deep, rather they made a journey of length 20000 leagues under the seven seas.

Leagues were not standardized. In Mexico, a league (legua in Spanish) was roughly: the distance a person can walk or ride (on horse or mule) in one hour. A more precise definition was: a league is 5000 varas, and a vara is 3 pies. Now 'pie' is Spanish for 'foot', not one of our large USA type feet, but a more petite 11 inches or so.

So a 'pie' is slightly smaller than a foot (USA unit), and a 'vara' is slightly smaller than a yard (about 33 inches instead of 36) and finally a 'league' is 5000 of these short yards, or about 4571 actual yards, or about 2.6 miles (= 4.18 km).

I guess they walked or rode pretty slowly. Anyway, now when you look at one of those old books about Mexico you will understand the units of distance.

An interesting side note: some deeds still valid today in Texas measure distances for plots of land in 'varas' !

5 comments:

Esther said...

This is really interesting! I am looking forward to reading a lot more.

JB said...

Thanks esther. I hope I don't run out of steam. Except for your comment I don't know if anyone ever reads these articles.

PaulBud said...

Well I just read it too and also found it interesting. I had no idea 20000 leagues under the sea meant anything but under it. Cool.

Keep up the blogging. I'm interested to learn more about how you find mexico and how you're changing. Today I bought 12 corn tortilla's hot off the tortilla press in little mexican store in Bay Point, CA where people spoke spanish to me. Cost was $1.

JB said...

Thanks paulbud for your interest. Those are tough questions but stay tuned! 1/2 kilo of tortillas here (a stack about 1 and 1/2 inches high) costs about 4 pesos, roughly 40 cents U.S.

Anonymous said...

Just discovered your blog. Keep it up. We just got back from a trip to Xalapa and Xico. Loved it.