The weather at home has started to turn cold and rainy which means it is time for me to head south to find some sun and warmth. I was actually meant to have been born in a tropical place. I tried expressing this in utero, but my mom didn’t listen. I’ve been complaining about the cold ever since. And by cold I mean 50 degrees F which is sort of the average in the winter in Santa Cruz. Let’s face it. I’m a pansy.
I hopped aboard United flight 1450 headed from San Francisco to Merida, Mexico, cultural capital of the Yucatan. When the Spaniards pulled up to the Yucatan peninsula they weren’t dreaming of warm weather and tacos. If they were, the world might have been a better place. The arrival of the Spaniards in the Yucatan make the annual arrival of the spring break crowd to Cancun look like a cake walk. At least the spring breakers leave! The origin of the word “Yucatan” remains unclear. It could have come from the first interaction between the Spaniards and the Mayans as Yuk ak katan translates to “I don’t understand your language”. Uk yu uthaan means “Listen to how they talk” and Ci u than, “I don’t understand”. It all adds up to one thing. What’chu talkin’ bout Willis? Or, say whaaaat? This was the first of many unfortunate misunderstandings.
The cathedral on the main plaza is gorgeous at night. But look closely. See the slits in the front wall about half way up? Those were used to gun down the Mayan people when they came to protest their treatment. Apparently they didn’t have an HR department. But seriously, hearing that gave me different feelings about the beauty of the cathedral. On a bright note, Pope John Paul II came to the Yucatan in 1993 to apologize to the Mayan people. Never hurts to say, “I’m sorry.” Not that the Mayans were all peace, love, and happiness. I went to see Chichen Itza, one of the seven wonders of the world, the ruins of a great, ancient Mayan city.
Our guide described with great relish, the various horrible ways the Mayans killed each other. I won’t go into detail about how that was done but a Frenchman in the group won the understatement of the year award when he pronounced they Mayans as being “terribly rude”.
This may look like a stone age pet-rock with googly eyes, but it’s actually a ceremonial knife for human sacrifices. I thought it was funny till I learned what it was and then it became just a liiiiitle creepy.
Merida has had some bad blood in its past. Ironic then, that it has become the safest city in Mexico and a delightful center of art, music, and culture. Pound for pound, inch for inch, I would say it is the most sophisticated city I have been to in Mexico and that includes Mexico City. At one point, Merida was the richest city in Latin America with 870 very wealthy families running huge Agave sisal plantations. The fibers were used to make rope and the burlap sacks used for sand bags that other countries used to build trenches for their wars. Apparently war has always been good business for the few. With the advent of nylon, sisal fibers fell out of favor and the wealth dried up and blew away. Only in the past few years have people started to refurbish and repair these gorgeous old homes and turn them into museums, hotels, banks, and restaurants. You can see some of them with their fabulous marble stairways, all gated and shuttered up, vines creeping up their sides, stained and in sad disrepair. But right next door will be a home who’s found a new owner and a second chance at grandeur.
Merida doesn’t hit you over the head with her beauty the way some cities in Europe can. I remember my first trip to Rome being stunned and overwhelmed because you couldn’t turn around without getting poked in the eye by a sculpture from a famous artist. You could walk down a random side street, think you were slipping into a small, anonymous church and there were all these paintings by Michelangelo. In Merida you have to be paying attention, look a little harder, as she’s a little more coy. But it’s there. For example, by day I had walked past a big building all shuttered and closed over and over. Then one night as I walked down the street enjoying the sound of the clip clop of the horse-drawn carriages and soaking up the warm evening breeze, the shutters were all thrown back to reveal gleaming marble floors, high ceilings, chandeliers, and a sweeping staircase. It was a theater!
Further down the street I encountered strains of a piano. Classical music floating down the street isn’t something you routinely encounter in Mexico. I paused to listen and peeked through the open window as I slowly walked by. It was a man in an empty room, head bent, eyes closed, creating beauty. I continued on, searching for a vegan restaurant I’d heard about. I’m not vegan let alone vegetarian but Mexico is very meat heavy and I was looking forward to a few vegetables. The street was nearly empty and I could see no signs of a restaurant but it had to be there because Google said so. At the spot where the restaurant was supposed to be was the usual fortress of impenetrable walls and closed wooden shutters. But there was a teeny window with a bell and a string, a la Monte Python. I pulled the string. I half expected the heavy wooden door to creak slowly open and a Knight who says neep to peer suspiciously from within. Instead the door was flung wide and a young Latina woman with a broad smile appeared, wishing me a buenas noches and gestured me inside. Tables surrounded a lit pool, Bougainvillea rustled in the warm breeze, and soft strains of old latin salsa floated out from the kitchen. Like I said, Merida guards her little treasures.