First, a preface on my background: I can’t decide if I should be a Cassandra (Sunspot cycle, Peak Oil, suitcase Nukes, Mayan Calendar mythology) or a Pollyanna (Y2K  Flop, Heaven’s Gate, 2003 Hindu prediction Flop, and the 6-6-06 Flop; not to mention all of the countless predictions of the beginning of the “Time of Jacob’s Trouble,” rapture, et cetera, that hucksters and zealots have hawked for thousands of years). I believe whatever happens will happen and be over very shortly, and it will either leave us relatively unharmed or (given that I live in a city and work at an inner-city teaching hospital) will kill us quickly.
Given this indecision, my thoughts on preparedness lean more towards self sufficiency and community building than fallout shelters, concrete bunkers and 75 years worth of canned soup on the shelves. I largely enjoy the genre as fiction, but I don’t expect cataclysm (The Road, Lucifer’s Hammer, or even Patriots); a friend and I once termed it as a “crumple.” Like the high school chemistry experiment of the metal can with the vapors boiled out that is suddenly capped and plunged into cool water: it crumples, but with some effort the shape and function can be largely recreated, save for a few creases in the metal and some weak points in the structure that will need repair before a “good as new” functionality returns.
I don’t deny the Walter Mitty  streak that I think many have; depending on the day you ask me. this can range to extremes: from being able to smugly smile that I was prepared for the bump in the road to being the last man on earth hunkered down and preserving the flame as the last bastion of learning. Naturally, the latter fantasy often includes a bevy of nubile young and (naturally) worshipful admirers that Domestic-6 might not approve of.
Given that preface, I did have an opportunity to look at what many would consider a subsistence, or at least a Third World, standard of living during a recent family vacation to the Yucatan We were given the opportunity to visit a Mayan village, populated by perhaps 30 families, and were invited into the homes of two of those families. I’ll begin by paraphrasing a comment that our tour guide made just before we left to return to our hotel: “They may not have all of the conveniences that we are used to, but they have shelter and food and children, and perhaps they are happier than we are.”
Overview of the Mayans
The families lived in one-room structures built of wood poles of about the diameter of a wrist that were stuck vertically into the ground [in stockade wall fashion](think an old western fort from cowboy films). They were not chinked, and the roof was thatch. Sleeping arrangements were hammocks, and these were rolled up over ceiling rafters during the day. As many as nine children (a total of eleven people) lived in a house no larger than my living room.
One corner of the structure was dedicated to cooking, and the matron of the house spent most of her day over a griddle that sat over an open fire cooking palm-sized corn tortillas, which she made by hand. Corn was soaked overnight, ground in the morning and then the dough was pressed and cooked all day. Given the size of the tortillas, I suspected it would take 8 or 9 of the flat cakes to make a meal. For a family of 11 this is over 450 handmade tortillas a day griddled on an old piece of sheet metal over a wood fire. Needless to say, Mom doesn’t get out much…
The wood and thatch construction of every house showed the location of the fire pit easily: the walls and thatch roof were singed black over and around the fire pit. As an aside, there were piles of cinder blocks and masonry everywhere. Our guide explained that after a bad hurricane season in 2005, the Mexican Federal government brought in building materials for the populace to construct sturdier shelters. They sat largely unused, save for a few towers to gravity feed water tanks. Our guide explained that the locals’ attitude was that their people had been living with hurricanes in their huts in the Yucatan for thousands of years. The thatch and wood huts were good enough for their ancestors, and were good enough for them.
I saw no cultivation to speak of; this made me think of the Thucydides’ comments on the barbaroi: “they planted no trees or vines.” The houses did have what could be, with enough generosity, considered a potager: a few plants were grown in pots, and several trees were scattered around the houses. It was not an orchard, per se, but almost appeared that a seed cast there had sprouted and grown, and the family now would make use of it. Chickens were kept in tiny crates that would make Tyson Chicken’s confinement operation jealous; the crates were not crates as much as piles of something against a pile of something else and covered with yet another thing that restricted the chicken to its 18 by 18 inch area. I saw a large sow likewise confined, though in a larger area. I didn’t ask if the animals were allowed out to forage.
There is some hunting by the men of the community to add a little variety to the diet. I only saw one old double shotgun. Herbal medicine and locally gathered wild foods are also used extensively.
Feral dogs and cats lived in the village, ribs showing and patches of fur missing. My father pointed out that in the United States the SPCA  would take and put down the animals for maltreatment, but to me the animals were there because the chose to be around humans. I don’t know if this was because the proximity to the people gave a few scraps to feed on or if it is a result of some deeper genetic need on the part of the dogs to be around people.
Water was pumped by gasoline engines from the abundant natural cenotes– underground wells. As I described earlier, many houses had a tank on a cinder block pole (many of the “proper” buildings around the area had roof mounted water tanks as well). To my knowledge, this was raw well water.
Another thing our guide pointed out was a solar panel. If I had to guess, based on size, I would think it was less than 100 watts. It was mounted high, and somewhat obscured by trees, but it was certainly less than 3 feet by 2 feet. This fed at least two huts. I saw a single battery of unknown vintage and type, but likely from a car. The only electric device I saw was a fluorescent bulb (U shaped, certainly not more than 40 watts). There may have been a radio squirreled away unseen.
My experience in the Yucatan is not directly portable to our own experience in northern latitudes. The Mayans have the advantage of occasional injections of aid from both governments and charities which would be lacking in a large scale collapse. September 11th and Hurricane Katrina both showed that eventually help may arrive, but a situation like [Hurricane] Katrina in the face of a massive recession or being the second or third disaster of the year, when society has already “shot its bolt” of aid, could mean that assistance will a long time in coming.
Thus, the implications for our preparations are many. The foremost thing that I took away was that the need for “75 years worth of canned soup on the shelves” that I described earlier is somewhat less than I’d thought. The Mayans lived self sufficiently on cornmeal cakes, a few minimally cultivated plants, and foraged game and foods. I would not begin to call it an easy life: the adults were universally missing teeth, the floors of the huts were of dirt, and simply preparing food was a full-time proposition.
Coming as I do from a life of soft hands, high speed Internet, 24-hour supermarkets, and year round fruits and vegetables, it was an eye opening experience for me.
I’ll repeat what our guide told us as we left the Mayans, “They may not have all of the conveniences that we are used to, but they have shelter and food and children, and perhaps they are happier than we are.”