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.

Yucatán Yummies

La Chaya Maya in Mérida

One of the best parts of my recent trip to Mexico was the general high quality of the meals I ate. Following is a brief survey of some of the highlights:

Mérida. My favorite restaurant in Mérida was La Chaya Maya on Calle 55 near Parque Santa Lucia. In all, I ate there five times. The specialty there is Yucatec Maya food, such as papadzules, salbutes, panuchos, and the excellent sopa de lima. It was there that I discovered chaya, or tree spinach, which when mixed with fruit juice makes an incredibly refreshing drink.

Martine vividly remembers sopa de lima from her trip with me to Yucatán in 1992. La Chaya Maya’s sopa de lima was the best, with its shredded chicken and tart local limes.

Honorable mention goes to Marlin Azul on Calle 62, where I had a memorable ceviche de pescado for just a few dollars.

Santa Elena is a small town between the ruins of Uxmal and Kabah. The Pickled Onion is a B&B run by a British and Canadian expat by the name of Valerie Pickles. Although she no longer does the cooking, the breakfasts at her place were memorable, but the poc chuc (a Maya pork dish) I had one evening was superb. I treated my Maya guide to the Puuc Hill ruins to a meal there, and he was so enthusiastic that he wanted to bring his family there.

A Few Miles South of Champotón is a restaurant on the Gulf of Mexico shore where I had the best seafood lunch of my life: It was a filete de pescado a la Veracruzána (filet of fish with a sauce of tomatoes, onions, and olives) at a restaurant whose name had the word Tortuga in it. I only wish I remembered the exact name. I liked my lunch there so much that I kept ordering the same dish elsewhere, but it never was quite so good elsewhere.

Campeche. I ate twice at Marganzo near the Plaza Independencia in Campeche. The seafood was great, particularly a botana (freebie extra dish) of octopus ceviche, which was incredibly fresh and tender.

The only bad meal I had in Mexico was also in Campeche, at a Chinese steam table buffet called the Restaurante Shanghai where all the dishes were tepid.

 

 

House of the Turtle

The House of the Turtle at Uxmal

I have always had a special feeling about turtles. That comes from having lived at the edge of a desert for the last half century suffering from a chronic lack of rain. I strongly suspect that the Maya of the Puuc Hills (redundant: Hill Hills the way that Torpenhow Hill in England means Hillhillhill Hill) felt the same way. One of the simplest, most classical and beautiful structures at Uxmal if the House of the Turtle.

It is named after the row of carved turtles that appear along the top edge:

Detail of Carved Turtle

As I have mentioned previously, the hills of the Puuc are separated from the underground rivers of the Yucatán Peninsula by several hundred feet of impenetrable limestone. The Maya of the Puuc had to dig cisterns (called chultunes) which they hoped would fill with water during the rainy season. In good years, they did. But when a series of dry years came in the Ninth Century A.D., the Maya just walked away from Uxmal. Why obey the local god/king and get a hernia hauling stones to build new structures when they might easily die of hunger or thirst?

All the stones of Uxmal—and, for that matter, all the Maya sites—were hauled by human labor. There were no wheeled conveyances because there were no wheels, and what would be the point anyway when there were no draft animals to pull them over roads which they would have to build of other heavy rocks in the first place?

Looking Through the Two Doorways of the House of the Turtle at the Nunnery Quadrangle

When you think of it that way, you can understand why the Maya just walked away from their ceremonial centers and changed their way of government. It was a miracle that they allowed themselves to be used for so many hundreds of years hauling rocks and putting them into place—even creating such magnificent sites as Uxmal—for little reward in their hardscrabble lives.

The Maya who built Uxmal are still in the neighborhood: It’s just that they are not quite so much involved in major engineering projects. And their homes, if built of stone (or, more likely, cinder blocks) use trucks to do the heavy hauling.