The Perfect House

Courtyard of the Casa Montejo in Mérida, Yucatán

When most Americans think of the ideal house, they always see it as set back from an immaculately manicured front lawn. Perhaps owing to my hatred of mowing lawns, I much prefer the Mexican house, which presents a blank face to the street—no windows, one regular-sized door—and with a delightful courtyard which can’t be seen from the street.

I cannot for the life of me see myself doing anything on a front lawn other than working my butt off. But a courtyard, that is a different matter altogether. I could set out a chair and read there, or talk to my friends, or even have breakfast.

Courtyard of the Former Archbishop’s Palace in Mérida

In Latin America, you can live in a beautiful house—as seen from the inside—and not have to worry about what the neighbors think. When I think of sliding glass doors opening onto decks, I wonder if most American houses are secure from theft and home invasions.

Street in Campeche: No Front Lawns Here

Above is a typical street in the center of Campeche. Some of the buildings are businesses; other, homes of the well-to-do. There isn’t much zoning in effect.

Truth to tell, unless I win the lottery, I cannot see myself as owning a house. And if I could somehow afford one, my idea of the perfect house would come into conflict with zoning regulations and local customs. I will probably continue to live in an apartment, where I don’t bother my head about perfection in any sense of the word.

Pirates of the Caribbean

Statue of Pirate on a Bench in Campeche

It was by no means one of the gold and silver ports used by the Spanish treasure fleets (those were in what is today Panama), but the city of Campeche, Mexico, was the main port of Yucatán from the 17th through the beginning of the 19th centuries. The city’s wealth came primarily from a plant used for dyeing textiles called palo de Campeche, salt from evaporation, and shipbuilding. The result was that the city was frequently attacked by pirates.

The most prominent of these were the Dutchman Laurens de Graaf, called Lorencillo, and Jean David Nau, called El Olonés. Of the latter, it was said:

He committed innumerable and famous stumbling against the Spanish viceroyalty of the mainland. In a terrible storm, he lost his ship on the coast of Campeche. All the men were saved, but, arriving on land, the Spanish persecuted them by killing most of them, and also hurting the Olonés. Not knowing this how to escape, he thought about saving his life through a ploy: he took several handfuls of sand and mixing it with the blood of his own wounds he smeared his face and other parts of his body. Then, hiding with great skill among the dead, he remained motionless until the Spaniards left the field of struggle. Since they were gone, he retired to the forest, sold his wounds and took care of them until heal and then headed to the City of Campeche perfectly disguised. In the city, he spoke with certain slaves to whom he promised freedom in case they obeyed him. They accepted their promises and stealing a canoe at night, threw themselves into the sea with the Olonés.

Surviving Fortifications in Campeche

Other pirates included Sir Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Cornelius Jol, Portuguese Bartholemew, Jacobo Jackson, Michel de Grandmont, Henry Morgan, and finally Jean Lafitte, who helped Andrew Jackson win the 1815 Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.

What the Spanish and the people of Campeche did was to fortify their city, surrounding the center with walls on all sides and putting separate fortifications on the north and south.

The Fortress of San Miguel, South of the City

With independence from Spain, the pirate menace eventually abated. But many of the walls (baluartes) that surrounded the city still exist and are walkable. You can also visit the two large fortresses that protect Campeche on either side.

 

Unfinished Business with the Maya

The Three States on the Yucatán Peninsula

I have not been to the Maya parts of Mexico since 1992, when I traveled to the Yucatán Peninsula with Martine and several co-workers at Urban Decision Systems. Now I am thinking of going again. My January trip to Guatemala only whet my appetite for more.

On past trips, I have seen the ruins at Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Dzibilchaltun, Acanceh, Mayapan, Palenque, Tulum, Kabah, Labna, Sayil, and Xlapak. I would not mind seeing Chichén, Uxmal, and Palenque again, and perhaps even spending a little time at Valladolid and Izamal, which I have not seen. New destinations would include several Maya ruins in the State of Campeche, most notably Calakmul and Edzná, and Bonampak and Yaxchilán in the State Of Chiapas. The latter two can be seen on a tour from Palenque.

The most problematical destination is Calakmul, which may possibly have been the largest Maya city at one time—perhaps even bigger than Tikal in Guatemala. The problem is that the southeastern edge of the State of Campeche has not yet been sufficiently developed for tourism by the Mexican government. I can possibly get a tour from either the city of Campeche or of Chetumal in Quintana Roo.

Maya Structures at Calakmul

There is also the possibility of Cobá in Quintana Roo. I might visit it if I have to go to Chetumal to set up a tour for Calakmul. Otherwise, I would be reluctant to run into the passenger ship mobs that dock at Cancun and the Maya Riviera.

Two cities I would love to re-visit are Mérida in Yucatán and Campeche in the state of the same name. Both are delightful places that positively reek of contemporary Maya culture, with hints of the Mexican mestizo culture and—oddly—an admixture of Lebanese and Syrian, due to the merchant classes that set up there in the 19th Century.