Seven Dolls

Sign at Entrance to the Ruins

There are untold thousands of Meso-American archeological sites scattered through Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. Sometimes, it’s fun to visit some of the lesser-known sites. I have particularly fond memories of Dzibilchaltún, which is about 10 miles (16 kilometers) north of Mérida. It was the first Maya ruin I visited back in 1975 with my guide Manuel Quiñones Moreno. We set on the steps of a temple and played several games of chess, which I lost handily.

So it was fun to visit it again in 2020. Now there was an entrance hall, an admission fee, and a rather nice museum. Plus, the cenote was filled with children diving into the limestone-cooled waters.

The Temple of the Seven Dolls

Above is the most famous structure at Dzibilchaltún, the Temple of the Seven Dolls, named after a number of figurines that were found by archeologists buried under one of the altars.

The Seven Dolls Buried in the Temple

Dzibilchaltún is not a world class beauty like Uxmal, Chichén Itza, Copán, or Tikál, but it helps fill in vital parts of the Maya story. Although it doesn’t have a lot of first-class structures, the city was inhabited for over a thousand years. It was close to the coastal salt flats that led to the one item most frequently used in the coastal trade with other peoples, namely: salt.

And I have happy memories because this is one of the places where I began my travels as a young man.

Second Class

When I went to Yucatán in 2020, I had not been to Mexico for many years. I was pleasantly surprised that even the second class buses were air-conditioned and relatively new. Back in the early 1980s, I remember the old Unión de Camioneros de Yucatán buses with their broken windows and busted seats. Now there were a whole spate of new companies, such as Oriente (shown above). This was the bus I took from Izamal to Mérida.

In all, I took six trips using second class buses:

  • Izamal to Mérida
  • Mérida to Uxmal
  • Uxmal to Campeche
  • Chichén Itzá to Valladolid
  • Mérida to Progreso
  • Progreso to Merida

The first four were on comfortable new Oriente buses. The last two were on a shabbier line that just ran every few minutes between Mérida’s Autoprogreso Station some twenty miles to the port of Progreso.

Above is the first class bus ticket I used to get from Campeche to Merida. The second class route took some 5-6 hours stopping at numerous small inland towns. The ADO (Autobuses de Oriente) line pretty much owns first class routes in Yucatán. From Campeche to Mérida, it took the coastal toll road, which took only about 2 hours.

What’s the difference between first class and second class buses in Mexico? The first class routes are theoretically point to point, not making any pickups or drop-offs along the way. I say “theoretically” because drivers are not above going out of their way for friends. On a second class route, anyone can stop a bus anywhere. When I was going from Chichén Itzá to Valladolid. I stood in the bushes across the street from the Dolores Alba motel and waved down the Valladolid bus. Piece of cake.

Confidenciales

Love Seats (Known as Confidenciales) on Mérida’s Plaza de la independencia

Mérida is a city full of little surprises. At first, one is conscious of the heat and humidity, followed by all that goes into making up a tropical city. Then, after a little while, one notices surprising little things that give the city its own charming uniqueness. Ever since the 17th century, the city’s parks have been dotted with concrete love seats called confidenciales. Rarely does one not encounter (during daylight hours anyhow) young Maya couples seated on them and whispering into each other’s ears.

The Courtyard of the Macay Museum of Contemporary Art

In a tropical climate, nothing is more welcome than cool shade. And it’s not too difficult to find it. When I visited the Macay Museum of Contemporary Art, I was so enthralled by the courtyard, that I sat down on a bench and meditated for upwards of an hour. The building that houses the museum used to be the Archbishop’s Palace.

If I owned a house, I would like one that presents nothing but a wall and a door to the street—with no front lawn requiring frequent maintenance. I’d much rather have a courtyard, invisible from the street with cozy benches and a fountain.

Colonnade by the Plaza de la Independencia, Built in 1821

Finally, I loved all the colonnades. like the one above which is two centuries old. It’s good to get out of the sun when it is hot, and there were always shops in the colonnade where you can get a cold beer or some tropical-fruit-flavored ice cream.

Perhaps all these things speak to me of comfort and relaxation, which is always a good thing when one is on vacation. Wherever I went, I found time to relax in the main plaza or a lovely courtyard or a welcoming colonnade. I always made sure that there was some relaxation time wherever I went. I saw a lot of wonderful places, and I had a good rest.

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.

Ceviche

Ceviche de Pescado con Limon

My last meal in Mérida before returning to the U.S. was at a grungy little seafood dive on Calle 62 called the Blue Marlin (Marlin Azul). It was a raw fish dish called ceviche de pescado that is “cooked” with the addition of fresh lime juice. Also it contains cut-up tomatoes, chiles, and cilantro. It is served cold and is an ideal lunch dish.

In Progreso, a few days earlier, I had a ceviche de pulpo made with the same ingredients, except that octopus replaces the fish. I was in hog heaven.

Actually the seafood dish I ate the most in Yucatán this last trip was filete de pescado veracruzana. It was a grilled filet of fish in a tomato sauce with onions, olives, and capers. I never got tired of it, especially when I was near the sea and knew that the fish was super fresh.

During this awful coronavirus outbreak, I dream of traveling by bus between various seaport cities in Baja California and living on fish tacos and other local specialties.

Baja Style Fish Tacos

When I was growing up in Cleveland, I didn’t think much of fish. Lake Erie, the shallowest of the Great Lakes, was for all intents and purposes a body of water noted for dead fish floating on its surface. I have had some good seafood in Los Angeles, but avoid shrimp and lobster, as I seem to be allergic to them—possibly because of the pollution of the Pacific Ocean around the coast of Southern California.

Traveling to places like Iceland or Mexico where the seafood is so fresh and interesting makes me dream of travel again. Sigh.

Returning to Yucatán—After 28 Years

The Plaza Grande in Mérida

The Year 2020 for me began with relief and some elation. The relief because, on the day before I left for Mexico, I had turned 75 and outlived my father, who died at age 74. The elation was because, after 28 years, I was returning to one of my favorite places on Earth. I started coming in 1975, when I was 30, annoying my parents who wanted me to spend all my vacations in Cleveland with them. Then I returned several more times, once during such a fierce heat wave that I had to fly to the mountains of Chiapas for relief. The last time was in 1992, when I came with Martine and three of my co-workers from Urban Decision Systems.

On January 14, I emplaned from LAX to Guadalajara, and after several hours from there to Mérida. No sooner did I step off the plane than I went through a kind of manic shock of recognition. I took a taxi to the Hotel La Piazzetta at Parque de la Mejorada, where I had a simple, clean, and comfortable room. (As with most of my accommodations, particularly at the beginning of a trip, I had reserved in advance.)

My Table and Chairs at the Hotel La Piazzetta

Although I arrived at the airport in Mérida around noon, I didn’t do anything special except walk around the city endlessly (developing a nasty blister) and having a spectacular lunch at the Chaya Restaurant on Calle 59 (whose dining room is shown below). I ordered a meal of Panuchos, fruit juice with chaya (also known as tree spinach), and flan, which is called queso napoletano in Yucatán.

The Dining Room at the Chaya Restaurant in Mérida

My vacation was to last three and a half weeks and take me all around the States of Yucatán and Campeche. I visited many of the great Maya ruins I had seen on previous trips, plus Edzna and Ek Balam. Would I go back? Yes, in a heartbeat.

However miserable this whole coronavirus quarantine is, my year started with a spectacular vacation that lifted my spirits so high that, more than six months later, I am still not back to ground level. That’s only one of the things travel can do for one.

Plague Diary 26: The Latin American Hot Spot

Covid-19 Still Rages in Latin America

I was disappointed to hear that Latin America is still considered a global hot spot for the Coronavirus, particularly Brazil, Peru, and Mexico. According to a bulletin issued yesterday by the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City:

The number of confirmed and suspected cases is still increasing daily in several regions of Mexico. Mexico City, Tabasco, Sinaloa, Aguascalientes, and Yucatan currently report the highest incidence rates of active cases (incidence rate is the number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the last 14 days). Hospital occupancy rates are also increasing, with the highest levels in Mexico City, Mexico State, Guerrero, Morelos, and Chiapas. Mexican health authorities have reiterated calls for people to stay home during this time.

Since I would love to re-visit Yucatán and Chiapas, this comes as bad news if i wanted to leave the country for my vacation. More and more, I think I will have several short vacations this year in the Southwestern U.S.

 

Plague Diary #22: The Shrunken Universe

In My Life, the Maya Stand for the Universe at Large

The first time I traveled outside the United States, it was to Yucatán in 1975, when I was thirty years old. The last time I traveled outside the United States, it was the same—just as I reached the age of seventy-five. Almost immediately after my return to California, the Universe shrank suddenly. There was my apartment with its books and DVDs (and, yes, VHS tapes); there were the grocery stores and pharmacies and doctors’ offices. and precious little else.

Now, as the coronavirus is pulling out with the tide, the Universe is slowly growing larger. There are changes: people are wearing face masks (or not), and the rate of growth is incremental, with promise of sudden expansion after Independence Day. I have this sudden urge to travel, even if it is to the nearby desert, which is starting to heat up as summer nears. I would be content to travel somewhere in the United States with Martine. Currently, she is uninterested in visiting any foreign country except perhaps Canada.

On my kitchen table is a small pile of Lonely Planet guidebooks which I look into from time to time to remind myself that my present reality is just a small subset of what exists. I would not mind returning to Yucatán to visit the Maya sites that have so far eluded me: Cobá, Chacchoben, Dzibanche, Kinichna, Oxtankah, Calakmul and the Rio Bec sites, Yaxchilan, and Bonampak. Then, too, there are the Maya ruins in adjacent Belize—a new border to cross.

In fact, every time I look, there are more Maya sites to see. Most of them are in jungle terrain, which would mean protecting myself from mosquitoes, garrapatas, and other baddies referred to in Mexico as bichos. I rather like the fact that there is always more to see, to know, to absorb. To quote the Tao Teh Ching, “From wonder into wonder existence opens.”

 

 

Henequen and Chicle

Henequen Was the Major Source of Yucatán’s Wealth Around 1900

While I am here quarantined in my apartment, I look back with pleasure to my trip to Yucatán in January and February of this year, before the coronavirus outbreak reached America’s shores.

Before the days of mass tourism to the peninsula, the economy of Yucatán was based primarily on henequen, and less importantly on the sap of the sapodilla tree. In the first case, henequen fiber was used to make a rope usually referred to as sisal, or matting. Such was the demand for the fiber that the owners of haciendas that grew henequen became millionaires. Today, their mansions line the Paseo de Montejo, once one of the richest residential streets in the world.

A Pre-Wrigley Gum Wrapper

The other substance for which Yucatán was known was chicle, originally the substance that made chewing gum possible. Chicle was made from the mily latex of the sapodilla tree, which was tapped similarly to rubber trees in the Amazon. Men known as chicleros ranged far and wide in jungle areas tapping the sapodilla trees, and in the process discovering many of the Maya ruins which are now major tourist attractions. I remember a number of years ago a brand of candy-coated chewing gum called Chiclets. Even then, it was no longer made using real chicle.

Nowadays, both henequen and chicle are no longer major economic forces in Southeast Mexico. There are still a couple of active haciendas specializing in henequen for ropes or matting, but the day of the chicleros is forever gone since chicle has been replaced by a synthetic substance known as a polyol.

 

Mexican Folk Art: La Casa de los Venados

What It Feels Like to Stay at Home All the Time

I am about to take a break from my “Plague Diary” posts to remind myself that, somewhere, something like a normal life still exists. Toward the end of my vacation in Yucatán, I spent several days in Valladolid, home of one of the country’s best private collections of folk art at the Casa de los Venados. I loved the exhibits I saw throughout my trip of folk art. The combination of humor and brilliant color had me won over. Now that I am sitting out the plague in my apartment, sans restaurants, sans libraries, sans movie theaters, sans any humor or brilliant color. (Especially as it has rained all week.)

Dog Cart

Sometimes I feel as if North American culture is deficient, especially in the visual arts. It wasn’t always thus, but somehow I feel that abstract expressionism took all the fun out of painting. Seeing the collection at the Casa de los Venados, on the other hand, made me laugh out loud.

Mermaid


The amazing thing about Mexican folk art is that there is so much of it about and at such reasonable prices. Over several decades, you can have a great collection that might even rival the Casa de los Venados—and have loads of fun doing it.