Haibun: The Norte

A Norte Storm Lashes the Gulf Coast of Yucatán

A Haibun is a uniquely Japanese medium in which prose and haiku poetry are interspersed. I will attempt to memorialize some of my travel experiences using the Haibun genre from time to time. My intent is to follow the style of Matsuo Bashō:

November norte
White-clad Maya point and laugh
Paper boats bobbing in the street.

It was November 1992. I was in Yucatán with Martine and three friends from work: George Hoole and Jin and Christine Han. On the last day but one of our trip, the peninsula suffered a storm called a norte, because it originated in the United States and gathered strength as it crossed the Gulf of Mexico. The streets of Mérida were flooded: There was no walking without wet stains halfway up the leg. We were staying at the Posada Toledo, an old mansion turned hotel, near the center, worried whether our return flight the next day would be able to take off. Jin Han lightened the mood by carefully folding paper boats and setting them adrift in the street. They aroused considerable hilarity among the passersby.

 

Getting Ready for Yucatán

A Mérida Taxi Receipt from a November 1982 Trip

I finally settled on my date of departure for Mexico to take place around the middle of next month, though Volaris still has not confirmed my reservation. I will be flying to Mérida via Guadalajara both ways. I could have elected to transfer in Mexico City, but I have memories of a flight some thirty years ago while the passengers waited for hours for a well-connected wife of a politician to be boarded ever so fashionably late.

But then, when one travels in Mexico, one travels by Mexican rules. This involves an expectation of the unexpected, and a sharp attention paid to current circumstances, despite conflicting information from supposedly authoritative sources.

In preparation, I have been reading Paul Theroux’s On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). Ever since running into his book of a series of railroad journeys from Boston to Argentina entitled The Old Patagonian Express, I have been deeply influenced by his writings on travel. Theroux is profoundly cynical, though perhaps not so much as Tobias Smollett, whose journey of a trip to France and Italy earned him the nickname of Smelfungus by no less than Laurence Sterne.

Theroux provides a nice summary in his book about the land I am about to visit:

I have not found a traveler or commentator, foreign or Mexican, who has been able to sum up Mexico, and maybe such an ambition is a futile and dated enterprise. The country eludes the generalizer and summarizer; it is too big, too complex, too diverse in its geography and culture, too messy and multilingual—the Mexican government recognizes 68 different languages and 350 dialects.

When my best and oldest friend talks about Mexico—usually disparagingly—he really means the border regions, where the drug cartels, police, and army are the major players.  I myself have visited several Mexicos:

  • Border Mexico (Tijuana, Ensenada, Mexicali, and Cabo San Lucas)
  • Pacific Beach Resort Mexico (Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta)
  • Colonial Mexico (Zacatecas, Guanajuato, San Miguel Allende, Querétaro)
  • Canyon Mexico (Copper Canyon)
  • Capital Mexico (Mexico City—a world in itself)
  • Gulf Mexico (Puebla, Papantla, Veracruz, Jalápa, Villahermosa)
  • Zapotec and Mixtec Mexico (Oaxaca)
  • Caribbean Mexico (Cozumel)
  • Mayan Mexico

My favorite is the last category, which can be further subdivided into Highland Maya (San Cristóbal de las Casas), Jungle Maya (Palenque), and Yucatec Maya (Mérida, Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Campeche).

The White City

Mérida at Night

There are a handful of cities with which I have fallen in love over the years. They include Edinburgh, Scotland; Paris, France; Budapest, Hungary; Lima, Peru; and Mérida, Yucatán in Mexico. Mérida is widely known as the White City for the whitewashed look of its buildings. I don’t know if they have any “glass box” high-rises that have been built since 1992 (when I was there last), but I am willing to bet there are none.

I vividly remember arriving there for the first time in November 1975. The taxi ride from Manuel Crescencio Rejón Airport to the Hotel Mérida on Calle 60 was an entirely new experience for me. We passed a huge Coca Cola bottling plant on the road to the airport and a large number of single-story homes that seemed to be open to the street. I saw families sitting at their dinner table as if there were no fourth wall.

It was warm and humid: We were in the tropics. Everything looked so different. Then as we passed the Zócalo, I saw the scruffy looking old cathedral of San Ildefonso, and the large central square with its confidenciales (S-shaped love seat benches).

Confidenciales: Love Seat Benches in Mérida’s Parks

The next few days were an education for me. I decided to take a few tours, but I was up to the challenge of trying my Spanish. I went through a Spanish-only travel agency called Turistica Yucateca and spent two days traveling to such obscure Maya sites as Acanceh, Dzibilchaltún, and Mayapan with an English speaking guide named Manuel Quinones Moreno, who had his own automobile. I played chess with him at the ruins of Dzibilchaltún, losing all my games. We even visited an old henequén hacienda where rope was manufactured. You may recall that there used to be a kind of rope called sisal, named after the Port of Sisal in Yucatán from where the rope was shipped across the world.

I have nothing but happy memories of Mérida, and I look forward to renewing my acquaintance with the White City.

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.