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I'm a woman entering "the third chapter" and fascinated by the journey.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

What a night to forget the camera

On this, my last Saturday in Merida, I finally managed to get myself down to the weekly Noche Mexicano held at the beginning of the Paseo De Montejo, one of the loveliest streets on the continent. There is something going on every night of the week here, much of it free, and the people-watching is so good as to render the featured entertainment almost irrelevant.

But not quite. Tonight's show of more-or-less-traditional music from other regions of Mexico began with a rangy old cowboy (or a fair imitation of one) addressing the large crowd in Spanish too rapid for me to follow. Appreciative laughter followed his introduction of the first performer, Roberto Gonzalez, wearing the kind of suit and enormous hat favored by Mexican villains in bad Westerns. When his musical accompaniment proved to be pre-recorded, I didn't expect much, since my thinking has always been that live music should have live accompaniment. (Yes, I am married to a musician, so a bias is present.) But his voice was a clear, mellow baritone, and the crowd loved his songs. At one point, a smallish gaggle of teen and tween girls linked arms and swayed to the music while the elders in the audience sang along. Fun was definitely being had.

The next act was the Ballet Folklorico of Merida, young dancers whose black and white costumes seemed a cross between square dance outfits and The Day of the Dead. Their faces illustrated the ethnic melting pot of this city, where people from Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas have been meeting and intermarrying for several centuries. The dances were likewise a high-energy mix, combining what looked a lot like Irish step dancing with occasional polka moves, line dance, and a cattle ranch motif. Even these young people were getting winded.

Public fiestas in Merida involve lots of vendors: jewelry, hats, leather, hennequin bags, ceramics, and  lots of  beautifully embroidered clothing. Food is abundant. A local food truck favorite that I have yet to sample is the marquesita (not to be confused with the margarita), a kind of thin waffle pressed until it begins to crisp, filled with shredded cheese and something sweet, and rolled. Lots of those were being consumed, along with that other local favorite, corn on the cob, here eaten with a stick inserted into one end so that it is easy to hold. Of course, there were taco trucks. (And I had eaten dinner and resisted everything.)

Parking is often at a premium in the center city, so many people choose to walk to the Paseo. Others, however, arrive by carriage. Merida is home to a number of coach owners who give horse-drawn tours of the older parts of town, or just serve as elegant taxis. Many of the carriages are trimmed with flowers. Upon asking a taxi driver where the horses were kept, as one sometimes sees the carriages parked on residential streets, I learned that most of the drivers live in the old parts of town, where the Spanish colonists would lead their horses in the front door, through the house, and out to the back yard. Today's carriage drivers do the same thing.

Merida does sometimes feel like a fantasy, and tonight, I passed a horse whose equipment included a sparkly rainbow horn, which it seemed to wear most proudly. If you have ever wanted to ride in a carriage pulled by a unicorn, you can do it in Merida.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Backyard Birding in Merida

I stole the title from Cherie Pitillo's great column, published twice a month in The Yucatan Times. She has documented 55 species in her yard, and her photographs are way better than mine. (Check out this recent entry.) 

The Yucatan Peninsula hosts some of the greatest avian diversity in the world: 546 species in roughly 76,000 square miles, a little bigger than South Dakota, which has documented around 350 species. For someone who has not done a birding tour and is staying in the middle of a large city, I have been pleased with what I have noticed from the guesthouse terraces and patios and just walking the streets of ordinary neighborhoods (despite the abundance of concrete and lack of obvious greenery, Meridanos being prone to planting their gardens in their back yards, rather than in front where wandering tourists can snoop). Just this morning, with my first cup of coffee, I got to observe white-winged doves building a nest, wild parrots, tropical mockingbirds, at least one hooded warbler, a horde of great kiskadees, the usual grackles, Altamira orioles, some kind of small falcon moving too fast for me to get a positive ID, a hummingbird (no idea of the species as it moved too fast), and a variety of unidentified little brown birds (probably the females who went with some of the various yellow and orange males). From my lawn chair. Still in my bathrobe.

The frustration is that these lusciously beautiful creatures are in the trees, darting in and out among the leaves, most of them grabbing insects, fruit, and seeds and refusing to hold still for pictures, neither my hand nor my camera being good enough to zoom in instantaneously on rapidly moving targets. Sigh.

However, some of the local birds are most cooperative. The other morning, two great-tailed grackles were having quite the contest, it seemed, hopping down the street in front of me, stopping periodically to engage in the handsome-grackle pose. One nearly got himself run over by taking the contest into the street,

but this fellow granted me the best photo-op.

One must love the young, handsome, and self-assured.

Friday, January 20, 2017

For the birds

Today's discovery was the first "real" park I have visited here, meaning one in which green space and wildlife are the focus.

It is the Acuaparque, an old quarry now home to a pond and wetland and lots  of birds. The park is hardly wilderness, being surrounded by city and well-populated with human visitors, but it definitely is a haven for small wildlife. In the first ten minutes of meandering up a paved trail, I encountered two life birds, a little blue heron and a number of northern jacanas, amusing robin-sized creatures that can walk on lily pads. One name for them is the "Jesus bird" since they seem to walk on water.

Another interesting tidbit about the jacana: it is polyandrous, with females seeking out multiple mates, and the males are responsible for most of the child-rearing.

Ducks, great egrets, kiskadees, grackles, and the occasional sandpiper added to the life in the park, along with joggers, dog-walkers, and people just out for a stroll before the heat made being outside too unpleasant. With the help of an expat resident in Yucatan for the last several decades, I was able to encounter two other "life birds" today: one of the anis (which are evidently so common here that my birding companion almost failed to point it out) and a great-crested flycatcher, like yours truly, spending the winter in the tropics.

My favorite inhabitant of the park was another winter resident, the American coot, almost as ubiquitous as the grackles and the doves. These white-footed and white-billed clowns were everywhere today, swimming, diving, feeding, feuding, and being generally entertaining.

As much as I have enjoyed the human history and culture of this old city, my soul has hankered for green. The Acuaparque delivered.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Where it ended

This, gentle readers, is the place where the dinosaurs died. Technically, it is the view from the patio of the Crabster Restaurant and Grill in Progreso, Mexico, but it is also part of the Chicxulub crater, the impact structure formed some 65 million years ago when a 10 km meteor landed nearby and brought about the end of the Mesozoic Era. It took a few years (well, more like a few thousand) for 75% of all the species on earth to die off, but this peaceful-looking beach was once the epicenter of the greatest natural disaster our planet has ever experienced.

I am hoping not to be around for the next one.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Jane Austen and Mexico

are not generally mentioned in the same breath, but for some reason, my escaping-the-heat reading is including a fair amount of Miss Austen. One reason, of course, is that long, lazy afternoons are great for her carefully-crafted sentences and delicate character sketches, but another is the character of much of Merida itself.

This city saw a real boom in the 19th century, as demand for sisal rose and haciendas in the Yucatan scaled up to meet that demand. It wasn't quite the British Empire, but an influx of cash allowed for a lot of conspicuous consumption and the creation of some lovely country estates and town houses. On my way back from a grocery shopping trip today, I chanced to stop at a bench across from a house museum, home to one these wealthy families.

Now I have not taken the tour of this place to hear the stories of the family that lived there, but today's reverie found me imagining the lives of unmarried daughters in such a family, which led to thoughts of Jane Austen and the Bennet sisters of Pride and Prejudice and their acquaintance. While women of their class did not face the time constraints of those of us who spent (or are spending) decades of our lives trying to balance conflicting demands, these women were not free. Unless they were among the rare few who inherited enough money to be independent, they needed to marry as "a preservative from want" or risk being dependent on the kindness of relatives for their support. I ask the reading audience to imagine being totally dependent upon one's in-laws or siblings for food and housing.

Moving away from crass thoughts of money, I thought of the sheer boredom likely faced by intelligent people with few outlets for their energies, especially if they were surrounded by an extended family unsympathetic to their interests. (True confession: I have occasionally wished that someone would strangle Mrs. Bennet.) Imagine decades spent with the same people, listening to the same complaints and gossip. Shudder.

Looking at some of the exquisite porches on these colonial homes, I wonder if any of the ladies of the house passed their time reading translations of Jane Austen. She understood their lives.

MeridaFest 2017

This city knows how to throw itself a party. Every January, it holds free arts events every day for two weeks or so, in addition to the regular cultural celebrations that take place every day. One person cannot possibly attend them all, so I haven't tried, but those I have attended bring out a mix of people intent on enjoying both the event and their city.

The jazz night in a nearby park found a few hundred people sitting on uncomfortable (at least for people of my Norteamericana size and shape) folding chairs while a mixed group of Cubans and Mexicans gave a delightful high-energy performance. All the musicians, including the bass player, were featured, and the female singer demonstrated just how sexy a fully-clothed fortysomething woman can be, remaining almost stationary and using primarily her voice to convey longing.

Tonight I braved the Plaza Grande, and oh, my, what a show. The actual paid musicians were fine: a group of men of varying ages in bright blue jackets that reminded me of doo-wop singers; The Voices of Yucatan, striking in their pure-white outfits; and the final group, which I couldn't get close enough to see but which at one point involved a couple of young women in what looked like spangled majorette outfits. All the music involved lots of horns and seemed familiar to the crowds, as singing along happened a lot. Fog machines are popular with outdoor stages, leading to some interesting lighting effects.

But the real show was the crowds. Both of tonight's outdoor bands inspired dancing, with couples of all ages joining in whenever they could find two square feet of floor space. This was not easy.

Away from most of the dancing couples (it is a grand plaza, after all), children and adults were indulging in a variety of street food, browsing the dozens (hundreds?) of booths selling various items, perching on benches and walls, and generally enjoying themselves. The purveyors of glow-in-the-dark doohickeys that could go airborne for brief periods were doing a brisk business, as was the guy selling light sabers. Lots of bubbles were being blown, adding their little bit of magic to the night and the fog and the glowing whatevers.

A group of teenaged boys engaging in some rather alarming breakdancing added a daredevil element. And the backdrop to it all: some simply beautiful buildings.

Quite a party.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Everyday enjoyments

At some point, I should probably find something profound to say about spending time in the ruins of the great Mayan cities (and visiting Uxmal and Kabah was quite the experience), but the truth is that, thus far, my takeaway from the first eleven days in Merida is how livable it is (if one ignores the sometimes brutal heat and humidity, fortunately less now than a few days ago). There are still museums to visit and famous sights to see, but many of the charms of this city are low-key.

Not being a big-city person and not being over-fond of crowds, especially crowds that include numbers of people hawking a variety of wares, I am not spending much time around the Plaza Grande, even when Cirque du Soleil performed free in honor of the city's 475th anniversary. Instead, I have been seeing where my feet take me.

Sometimes they take me to the Paseo de Montejo, the grand 19th-century boulevard surrounded by some quite lovely buildings, some of which are still private homes. Who could resist this ridiculous confection of a house?

On Sunday mornings, the Paseo is closed to motorized vehicles for the Bici Ruta, a bicycle (and pedestrian, and skateboard) outing that attracts all ages.

This is also a city that likes its parks. Today found me in two of them: the Parque del Centenario (which seems to have nothing to do with any centennial), home of the city zoo and lots of activities for children, and El Parque de Santiago. Like many of Merida's other parks, this one is centered on an old church--in this case, one constructed in 1637.

The zoo is the old-fashioned kind, with enclosures that seem much too small for many of the mammals housed there, although the animals all have shade, water, and places to hang out and move around. My sense is that the city is engaged in the balancing act of providing a free place for citizens to visit (yes, the zoo is free) while trying to meet the needs of the non-human inhabitants of the space. The parrots in the large aviaries seem reasonably content and willing to wander over for conversation with strangers.

And this park, with its dense tree cover, is home to a fair number of wild birds, not only the ubiquitous city pigeon, AKA the European rock dove. Today's brief visit included sightings of the white-winged dove, some sort of small reddish dove, a scarlet tanager, and lots of great-tailed grackles. It came as a surprise to me to learn that a melodious call I've been hearing comes from these large black birds. Something else in the park (probably a tropical mockingbird) was doing a fair imitation of a car alarm.

One never knows what one will find walking down a quite ordinary street. Today found me ducking into the patio of the Catherwood House, where the 19th-century illustrator of Travels in Yucatan lived. Today the building houses a bookstore, a spa, and two tiny cafes, one under roof and one not.

The café Americano was most excellent.

Every block here seems to have its hidden treasures. More explorations to follow.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Tropical plants 1

In keeping with the usual topics of this blog, it is time for some quick thoughts on the plants being encountered here in the Yucatan, where we are in the actual tropics. Merida is not a particularly "green" city, being densely populated and much of it built during centuries when the concept of the urban forest did not yet exist. Most houses in the old town front on the sidewalk, and the sidewalks in many areas are too narrow to allow for any planting.

Plants, however, sometimes have other ideas. This mini-ecosystem seems to have grown up through a crack in the sidewalk near a downtown building and is doing its job of attracting pollinators.

Of course, private gardens and public parks exist all over the city. This tropical paradise is the walkway/driveway to the front door of our guesthouse.


And while I do not yet know the names of many of the more spectacular plants encountered around here, or whether they are native to this part of the world, some of them are indeed spectacular. This lovely thing rains orange blossoms on sidewalks all over town,

actual orange blossoms cover some of a city's less pleasant smells with their nostalgic sweetness, bougainvillea are everywhere, climbing to the tops of mature trees, and we have been lucky enough to be here when the royal poinciana (not seen since my Florida girlhood) are in bloom.

Lucky indeed.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Loving the mix

Someday I will get back to my usual plants-and-animals posts, but for now we are enjoying the human cultural mix to be found here in Merida (despite its often-tragic history). Yesterday brought the opportunity to tour the archaeological museum housed in the Palacio Canton, a luscious (or perhaps ludicrous) Beaux Arts confection of a building, constructed in 1904.

Porticos, pilasters, quoins, cornices, even gargoyles: this building has them all.

(And yes, I loved it, even though the porches and piazzas were closed to the public.)

And we cannot ignore the unusual touch of an ancient stone phallus displayed in the side yard.

Inside, the museum was an incongruous mix of this obviously European-inspired building with a display on the history and cultures of the Maya peoples of the eastern Yucatan prior to the Spanish conquest. This stairwell summed it up for me:

The artifacts displayed covered various periods, materials, and styles, ranging from the simple pottery of the pre-classic period to exquisite jade jewelry meant to convey the importance of its owner (and probably make him or her long for the ceremony to be over so that the ridiculously heavy thing could be taken off).

My favorite piece, though, was the dancing jaguar. (Apologies for the less-than-excellent photo.)

My limited reading of Maya myth suggests that jaguars are often associated with death and the underworld, and this fellow, with his arms, legs, or whatever they are, reminds me of another dancing god, the Hindu Shiva, whose dance represents the world of birth, death, and rebirth. Coincidentally, the earliest dancing Shiva seems to have been created as about the same time as the dancing jaguar at Chichen Itza.

Another historical mystery to ponder.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Beginning to learn

Merida may prove to be one of those places that breaks one's heart. At its best, it is beautiful and bustling, with buildings several hundred years old being refurbished

and repurposed. I suspect that this building, when finished, will look something like the state central library.

This lovely courtyard belongs to a public university.

Yes, grass and "weeds" are growing between the flagstones,

and it is someone's job to keep them watered so that they continue to absorb CO2 and help cool the air.  (People are paid to do far less valuable things)

But the history of this place is tragic. The city was founded in 1542 when Spanish soldiers overthrew the Mayan ruler and destroyed the existing city (and the Mayans had probably done dreadful things to others in their time). Centuries of enslavement and conflict followed, culminating in the 50-year caste war of the late nineteenth century, in which some 30,000 people died.

Despite the tragedy, this is a city proud of and honest about its history. This Friday will mark the 475th anniversary of Merida's founding with a citywide celebration of arts and culture. Yet the Palacio de Gobernio contains a series of commissioned murals depicting the horrifying as well as the inspiring aspects of that long history. We can only hope that these ever-present reminders of what can go wrong will help the future get more things right.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Settling in

We have now completed one full day in Merida, a city that I think I could love. We have not yet hit all the tourist sites (and may not get around to many of them), but walked from our guesthouse (in a close-in, not-yet-gentrified and -touristed) neighborhood to the elegant Paseo de Montejo, home to shops, hotels, museums--and Wal-Mart. Wally World is not a place I would normally shop at home, but a trip there did allow us to locate such essential items as shampoo, bread, milk, coffee, and cheap Dos Equis. (Yucatan is teaching me the value of sitting on a shaded porch with a cold beer on a hot afternoon.)

Tonight we accompanied our hostess to "Conversaciones con Amigos" at the Merida English Library, a fantastic, largely volunteer-staffed organization that not only provides English-language books but also organizes a number of events. The weekly conversation brings Spanish and English speakers together to improve their language skills (a thing sorely needed in my case). Our table featured three very patient Mexicans, two Ohioans, a Canadian, and a young British dressmaker from Norwich who had never heard of  Julian of that city. Trying to explain an anchorite visionary in my extremely limited Spanish was a challenge (and possibly a source of amusement to my unfortunate listeners).

Tomorrow we will attempt the walking tour of the Plaza Grande.